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Recently I’ve been carrying around and reading a copy of G.W.F. Hegel’s masterwork, the Phenomenology of Spirit. Carrying a book with such a strange and obscure title, and no cover art, sometimes makes me think: what would I say to a curious onlooker, whether friend or stranger, who asked the deceptively simple question, “What’s that book about?”

To a simple question one wishes to give a simple answer. In the case of the Phenomenology of Spirit I think there is only one good simple answer that one can give to the question “What’s that book about?” It is a one-word answer: everything.

Now what does that mean? How does one write a book about everything? Clearly one cannot say everything about everything. The Mahābhārata once made the impressive claim that “what is found here may be found somewhere else, but what is not found here may be found nowhere else.” After delving into the Mahābhārata one can appreciate this claim: there is indeed so much in there that the claim to contain everything known would at least seem plausible to an ancient Indian. But it’s not merely that a great deal has come to be known in the many centuries since. Even at the time, much that was not in the Mahābhārata was there to be known in Greece, China and elsewhere. Which is to say that as impressive as the Mahābhārata is, even in its own time its claim about itself was not true. (Perhaps the closest modern equivalent to the Mahābhārata’s attempt to say everything about everything is Wikipedia, which is indeed an impressive project – but its own limitations still become clear all too quickly to anyone who attempts to use it for serious knowledge.)

No, for it to make sense, the project of writing about everything needs to be constrained in some way. Map is not territory, and a book about everything can contain only the map. But how does one map everything? One way to do so is enumeration – to divide the world into categories, as the Vaiśeṣikas did. I increasingly see such an approach as a good start, a place to take off from. One might also be tempted to describe a comprehensive textbook on physics as a book about everything, in that it attempts to state what everything is made of. But physics only tells us what material things, matter and energy, are made of; it doesn’t tell us about the prerequisites of knowledge that allow scientific claims to make sense, let alone about ethics or aesthetics. (It’s not that physics can tell us nothing about value – the natural sciences that build on it, especially biology, can clarify a lot. But they cannot answer the most basic and foundational questions.) The Vaiśeṣika project of enumeration (or others like it) seems to me to have a better claim as a description of everything.

Now both Vaiśeṣika and physics take an integrity approach. They are works of analysis and not synthesis; they divide the world up into pieces so it can be seen clearly and precisely. That is not Hegel’s approach. His aim is not to delineate what the parts are, but to see how they all fit together. It is very much like the project of his successor Marx and the later Marxists, whose project is to see the whole of global capitalist society – but Hegel’s project is in a sense even broader, trying to understand the natural world as well, and give a bigger place to questions of value.

So what Hegel is trying to do in the Phenomenology of Spirit is give some account of everything and how it all relates together – not in the details of individual pieces, but in the connections that make the whole. I note as I write that when I say “everything” I want to add a qualifier: I want to say something like “everything that exists” or “everything in human experience”. But that’s not quite the right description. Because Hegel wants to go further than such qualifiers. Hegel wants to tell us as well about the relationship between things that exist and things that do not exist. When we’re trying to figure out basic matters of logic and metaphysics, nonexistence matters. It’s central to Anselm’s thinking about God, for example; he engages with an atheist opponent by trying to imagine what it could logically mean for God not to exist.

“Everything in human experience” is a closer description of what Hegel seeks to write about, for that catches some of the meaning of “phenomenology”: the study of appearances, of things as they appear to us. But here too it is not merely that. For Hegel is deeply concerned with the objective: with things as they really are, beneath the appearances.

That attempt at objectivity, indeed, is the ordering principle of the Phenomenology as I understand it. The book begins with the falsest and shallowest, but most apparently obvious, form of experience: “sense certainty”, that which appears to our senses without any mediation through concepts. For empiricists from Hume to Wilber, this is the most important and fundamental kind of experience and knowing. But Hegel argues along lines similar to Robert Gimello’s critique of mystical experience: sense experience tells us effectively nothing without some sort of conceptual knowledge to interpret it. Recognizing that point is the first step in the book’s dialectical progress through a great number of historical positions. Each one is deeper than the last, and each one moves us further away from bare, unmediated subjective experience, into a complex form of objectivity. (It is because of this progressive structure of argument that I once identified the third part of Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought as dialectical, though I later realized that identification to be false.)

Now does Hegel succeed at this project, of objectively identifying a whole that makes sense of everything? That’s a much harder question. But it’s one that can’t be answered without at least first attempting to grasp what it is that Hegel is on about in the first place.